As a child I hung out in my mom’s kitchen a fair bit, and especially on bread-baking day. If I was lucky I would get a pinch of dough to roll and knead like she was doing, and I would think about baking my tiny bun alongside her half-dozen loaves but it always ended up being eaten before it raised a second time. Shocking how these things happen.
Many years later I had yo-yoed home again and convinced her to teach me her recipe. I knew, by that time, she did not really have one, so I came prepared with measuring spoons and notebook and made her talk me through her way of making bread.
“Is this enough, Mom?”
“I don’t know, try it and find out? Oh, no, add a little more.”
And so on. In the process I heard her story of how she got the recipe from Grandma Clara, dad’s mom. She and Dad had returned to Viking and were living in their trailer parked in Grandpa and Grandma Ranum’s driveway. And she had been meaning to get Grandma to teach her how to cook, which was a set of skills she had not really learned at home herself (ask me about that sometime.)
So she broached the subject, and Grandma was willing to teach, and mom was focused enough on this she said she arranged for someone to watch the baby. (At this point I do not remember who the baby would have been. Terry? Lori?) She asked what the first step was.
“First, you fill the blue enamel pot about half-way with fresh milk…”
Like most of Grandma’s recipes, she did not have one. She just knew about how much of this, or that, was necessary. “About an egg’s worth of lard for every two loaves…” “Have a moderate oven, unless it’s windy out. You’ll need a bit more fire then.”
Apparently my mother made a few kitchen disasters on the way to mastering Clara’s milk-bread recipe. But, along the way, she too lost sight of the ‘how much’ and got to the ‘until it looks right’ bread recipe. We struggled through in her kitchen, though, and managed to turn out four quite reasonable loaves. I took my loaf, notes, and very dusty clothes home with me feeling quite proud and ready to try it myself.
Over the next few months I managed to ruin bread in every possible way. Dough dribbling over the bowl in the oven when I left it to raise too long, loaves which were one long hollow with thick uncooked dough on the bottom, batter which never raise an inch… If there was a technique to cause bread failure, I probably spontaneously discovered it. The most enduring and painful issue (which still dogs me to this day) is beautiful, perfect loaves which refuse to be parted from their baking pan, becoming torn (but a lovely crumb and scent!) and ruined.
I did eventually get a bit of a knack with making bread. And after an even longer time I got a kitchenaid mixer which could handle the mixing and kneading part of the process. I even dreamt of getting a bread machine once in a while. But you know, my favourite successes are when I go back to the old school, a big bowl, scalded milk, and a wooden spoon. Getting my hands into the dough and kneading on the kitchen table… when it works, it is very satisfying.
Yep, I still have failures. Especially as I learn the quirks of a new kitchen and oven, season new bread pans. And sometimes because I do not really follow a recipe, just enough of this, and that…
This recipe is a set of ratios; you need to decide how many loaves you plan on making, and multiply all measurements by that number. The larger the number of loaves, the more likely you are to have success. Do not try to do only one loaf, it almost never works. (Says the voice of still-haven’t-learned-that experience.)
The amount of flour will vary dramatically depending on all kinds of variables, like what kind of flour, how much bran is in it, whether it was bleached, what the humidity of the flour is, what the humidity of the atmosphere is… Use the amount of flour as a general guide line — you will almost certainly need more or less.
If you do this the natural, traditional way, starting with a very big bowl and a spoon, there two things you need to know up front: A) you are going to get very messy, and B) you really really do need to be extremely careful about washing your hands and arms (elbow on down) until perfectly clean – especially those fingernails. Making a yeast bread means you are trying to grow exactly the kinds of molds and yeasts that might be growing sight-unseen in those little cracks and crevices, but you only want the baker’s yeast and not the wild sort.
Hardware: oven, very large bowl (no, really, very large bowl but depends on how many loaves), small bowl, measuring spoons and cup, saucepan, loaf pans, a dishtowel or similar. A sturdy, clean surface on which to knead the dough — a counter can do in a pinch, but usually the table is a better height.
- 1 cup milk (preferably whole milk.)
- 1 tablespoon lard
- 1 tablespoon sugar
- 1 teaspoon salt
- 1/2 pkg yeast OR 1.5 teaspoon dry yeast
- 1/8 cup warm water
- 3-6 cups flour
- Put dry yeast into small bowl, and add warm water. Stir to dissolve. (A small amount of sugar or flour can be added to encourage rapid development; if possible you want a nice foamy ‘sponge’ in the bowl which tells you the yeast is alive and growing.)
- Measure lard, sugar, and salt into the large bowl. Scald the milk (bring it almost to boiling, but not quite) and pour into large bowl, ensuring the lard entirely melts and sugar/salt are dissolved. Cool until lukewarm. (If it is too warm it will kill your yeast in the next step.)
- Pour your yeast culture into the lukewarm milk mixture, and start stirring in flour, mixing well after each addition. Eventually it will be too stiff for the spoon, but too soft and sticky, and you will use your hands to mix in more flour. (Use dry flour you are adding to scrub off the sticky bits which adhered to your hands/fingers; nifty trick to reduce clean up later.) Keep mixing in the bowl until the batter pulls away from the side cleanly.
- Roll the soft dough out of the bowl onto your clean, floured surface, and begin kneading more flour in. Dough should become somewhat stiff and satiny with 10-15 minutes of steady kneading.
- Let the dough rest while you clean out the bowl, and lightly grease the inside with lard. Return the dough to the bowl, turning until the ball has a light coating of lard. Cover the bowl with the dishtowel, and place in a warm, draft-free location to rise. Let rise until at least doubled in volume. Leave in the bowl, and ‘punch down’ (no, do not really punch it!) to let a lot of the gas escape, then fold and turn it over, cover, and let rise again.
- Prepare the loaf pans while the dough is rising, lightly greasing them with lard. When dough volume has doubled again, punch down as before, and divide into loaves. Form each loaf — the purpose of this step is to squeeze as much of the gas out of the dough as possible, then form it into a smooth, dense lump which will rise evenly. My method is twist into a long baguette shape, and squeeze from one end to the other, then fold into thirds and pinch the sides into the bottom with the edge of my palm, and usually it works. Put each loaf into its pan, then cover with towel and set aside to raise as before.
- While loaves are rising, preheat oven to 300°. When loaves are about doubled, put in the oven. Note the time and watch carefully. When the loaves in the oven have risen “enough“, note the time and raise the baking temperature to 400°. Keep watching. When the crust is lightly browned — but not as dark as you want it to be — note the time and lower the temperature to 300-350°. The total time baking here will depend on a large number of variables such as altitude, humidity, and how accurate your oven temperature is regulated.
The traditional test for done-ness is to lift a loaf out of its pan and check the bottom crust for a light coloring, and then to tap it listening for a ‘hollow’ sounding little thump. I am rarely sure, with this test, if I got it right, but after ruining quite a number of loaves of bread trying to test them I have a pretty good grasp of how a well-baked loaf looks, smells, and sounds.
To get the ‘right’ color to the bottom crust of the loaf, because it is often pale and soft, you can flip them over in their pans, leaving the pallid bottoms up for a time to bake further — trick learnt from my mother.